Behind The Scenes Of The 2019 Superconference Badge

If you count yourself among the several hundred of our closest friends that have joined us at Supplyframe HQ for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, then by now you’ll have your hands on one of this year’s incredible FPGA badges. It should come as no surprise that an incredible amount of time and effort went into developing and manufacturing this exceptionally unique piece of hardware; the slick gadget in your hands today took nearly an entire year to develop, and work continued on it until very literally the last possible moment.

Badge designer Jeroen Domburg (aka Sprite_TM), Hackaday staff, and a team of dedicated volunteers were still putting the final touches on these ambitious devices less than 24 hours before they were distributed to the first wave of Superconference attendees. Naturally, that’s not exactly how things were supposed to go. But when you’ve got a group of people that want to push the envelope and build something truly incredible, convincing them to actually stop working can be a challenge in itself.

In fact, development of the badge is still ongoing. Fixes and improvements are being made to the software even as you read this, and if you haven’t already, you should upgrade your badge to make sure you’ve got the latest and greatest from our international team of wizards. We all know that conference badges have an unfortunate habit of languishing on the shelf and collecting dust, but the 2019 Superconference badge was built to challenge you for longer than just one weekend. Consider yourself warned: for every Supercon badge that gets tossed in a drawer come Monday, Sprite_TM will shed a single tear.

After the break, come along as we turn back the clock and take a look at the last minute dash to get 500+ badges programmed and ready to go before the doors opened for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

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Supercon Keynote: Dr. Megan Wachs On RISC-V

Hackaday has open-source running deep in our veins — and that goes for hardware as well as software. After all, it’s great to run open-source software, but if it’s running on black-box hardware, the system is only half open. While software has benefited mightily from all of the advantages of community development, the hardware world has been only recently catching up. And so we’ve been following the RISC-V open-source CPU development with our full attention.

Dr. Wachs, making her own wedding ring.

Our keynote speaker for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference is Dr. Megan Wachs, the VP of Engineering at SiFive, the company founded by the creators of the RISC-V instruction-set architecture (ISA). She has also chaired the RISC-V Foundation Debug Task Group, so it’s safe to say that she knows RISC-V inside and out. If there’s one talk we’d like to hear on the past, present, and future of the architecture, this is it.

The RISC-V isn’t a particular chip, but rather it’s a design for how a CPU works, and a standard for the lowest-level language that the machine speaks. In contrast to proprietary CPUs, RISC-V CPUs from disparate vendors can all use the same software tools, unifying and opening their development. Moreover, open hardware implementations for the silicon itself mean that new players can enter the space more easily, bring their unique ideas to life faster, and we’ll all benefit. We can all work together.

It’s no coincidence that this year’s Supercon badge has two RISC-V cores running in its FPGA fabric. When we went shopping around for an open CPU core design, we had a few complete RISC-V systems to pick from, full compiler and development toolchains to write code for them, and of course, implementations in Verilog ready to flash into the FPGA. The rich, open ecosystem around RISC-V made it a no-brainer for us, just as it does for companies making neural-network peripherals or even commodity microcontrollers. You’ll be seeing a lot more RISC-V systems in the near future, on your workbench and in your pocket.

We’re tremendously excited to hear more about the project from the inside, and absolutely looking forward to Megan’s keynote speech!

The Hackaday Superconference is completely sold out, but that doesn’t mean that you have to miss out. We’ll be live-streaming the keynote and all other talks on the Supercon main stage, so subscribe our YouTube channel and you won’t miss a thing.

Radio Gets Ridiculous

There were plenty of great talks at this year’s Supercon, but we really liked the title of Dominic Spill’s talk: Ridiculous Radios. Let’s face it, it is one thing to make a radio or a computer or a drone the way you are supposed to. It is another thing altogether to make one out of things you shouldn’t be using. That’s [Dominic’s] approach. In a quick 30 minutes, he shows you two receivers and two transmitters. What makes them ridiculous? Consider one of the receivers. It is a software defined radio (SDR). How many bits should an SDR have? How about one bit? Ridiculous? Then you are getting the idea.

Dominic is pretty adept at taking a normal microcontroller and bending it to do strange RF things and the results are really entertaining. The breadboard SDR, for example, is a microcontroller with three components: an antenna, a diode, and a resistor. That’s it. If you missed the talk at Supercon, you can see the newly published video below, along with more highlights from Dominic’s talk.

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Apple 1 Emulator Is A Perfect Fit For Supercon Badge

Supercon badge hackers had to be ready to present their show-and-tell by 6 pm Sunday evening. This ruthless unmoving deadline meant every badge hack on stage represents an accomplishment in time management, and some luck, in addition to their own technical merits. But that deadline also meant a few fantastic projects lost their race against the clock. We were rooting for [Jac Goudsmit] to build an Apple I emulator as his badge expansion, but he wasn’t quite done when our badge hack ceremony began. After Supercon he went home, finished the project, and documented everything in a detailed writeup.

Our 2018 Supercon badge is built on a retro-computing theme, and the default firmware came with a BASIC interpreter as well as a Z80 emulator running CP/M. So an Apple 1 emulator should feel right home with its contemporaries. Mechanically speaking, all the parts were a tight fit on the badge expansion board given out to every attendee at Supercon. So tightly that [Jac] had to file down the two main chips in order to fit them side by side. The breadboard-like pattern of connected holes on the expansion board, intended to help ease in beginners for their badge hack soldering, proved to be an inconvenience in tightly packed arrangements such as this.

With all the work [Jac] had invested, it was heartbreaking to know he was only five minutes of soldering and 30 minutes of coding away when time ran out. Time pressure was part of the challenge faced by every Supercon badge hacker, and while we’re sad [Jac] missed the deadline for stage time we’re happy to see him finish and write it all up. We hope every badge hacker would write up their stories of frantic weekend projects. Those who do so on hackaday.io are encouraged to tag their project with “Supercon” and get them added to our list of badge hacks for everyone to admire.

Supercon Badge Hackers Racing The Clock

At the end of Hackaday Superconference weekend, we hold a badge hacking ceremony on the main stage where anyone who has done anything with their badge is invited to come on stage and show off their work. Yes, even if it’s just a blinking LED! It was a tremendous pleasure to see not only people taking us at our word and presented blinking LEDs, but that the community in the room welcomed these inductees to hardware hacking with cheers. Before the ceremony, though, there was a lot of frantic work by badge hackers armed with soldering irons and fueled by caffeine. It’s always amazing how much people can accomplish in a single focused weekend.

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Green LED Means GO For Supercon Badge Hacking

In addition to great speakers and enlightening workshops at Supercon, we have an area set aside for attendees to hack on their conference badges. There is no prerequisite beyond having a badge and a willingness to get hands-on. From hardware beginners to professional embedded system developers, we welcome all skill levels!

The image above is a free-form LED light sculpture by [4C1dBurn], who had just learned to solder and this is how a new skill was put into practice. In the background is the badge hacking arena: 7 tables set up in a row with 6 seats per table. The doors opened at 9AM and almost all the seats were filled by 9:30AM. There’s a constant flow as people leave to attend a talk or workshop, and others arrive to fill the vacancy.

In our hardware hacking overview, we shared an example of an LED array controlled by badge using shift registers. Several badge hackers built on top of this idea. [X] is making a version for surface mount LEDs, and [macegr]’s variant incorporated an USB-to-serial adapter on board to reduce wire clutter. He calls it a “quality of life improvement” and we think it’s brilliant.

Any reduction in wire clutter can only help with the many glorious explosions of wires scattered about. This particular example is a work-in-progress by [carfucar] turning a badge into wireless remote for a large array of WS2812B LED strips.

Heeding our call to action in the hardware hacking overview, there are at least two efforts underway to add wireless communication capability to the badge. [Preston] is making good progress teaching a badge to talk to an AVR-IoT module. [morgan] and [Ben] are building a mesh network using ESP32s. If it gets up and running, they’ve brought a bunch of ESP32s to add more nodes to their network.

For the talks currently on stage, go to the Supercon event page and click “Livestream” in the upper right corner for the official live stream. Badge hacking will continue all through Supercon, parts of which will be visible through unofficial livestream of badge hacking from attendees like [X]’s robot [Sharon].

Vinduino Water-Smart Farming – Now With LoRa!

Our five rounds of Hackaday Prize 2018 challenges have just wrapped up, and we’re looking forward to see where the chips fall in the final ranking. While we’re waiting for the winners to be announced at Hackaday Superconference, it’s fun to take a look back at one of our past winners. Watch [Reinier van der Lee] give the latest updates on his Vinduino project (video also embedded after the break) to a Hackaday Los Angeles meetup earlier this year.

Vinduino started with [Reinier]’s desire to better understand what happens to irrigation water under the surface, measuring soil moisture at different depths. This knowledge informs more efficient use of irrigation water, as we’ve previously covered in more detail. What [Reinier] has been focused on is improving usability of the system by networking the sensors wirelessly versus having to walk up and physically attach a reader unit.

His thought started the same as ours – put them on WiFi! But adding WiFi coverage across his entire vineyard was not going to be cost-effective. After experimenting with various communication schemes, he has settled on LoRa. Designed to trade raw bandwidth for long range with low power requirements, it is a perfect match for a network of soil moisture sensors.

In the video [Reinier] gives an overview of LoRa for those who might be unfamiliar. Followed by results of his experiments integrating LoRa functionality into Vinduino, and ending with a call to action for hackers to help grow the LoRa network. It sounds like he’s become quite the champion for the cause! He’s even giving a hands-on workshop at Supercon where you can build your own LoRa connected sensor. (Get tickets here.)

We’re always happy to see open-source hardware projects like Vinduino succeed, transitioning to a product that solve real world problems. We know there are even more promising ideas out there, which is why Hackaday’s sister company Tindie is funding a Project to Product program to help this year’s winners follow in Vinduino’s footsteps. We look forward to sharing more success stories yet to come.

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